The Hermeneutics of Old Testament Prophecy

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p and pD. Brent Sandy’s book entitled Plowshares and Pruning Hooks has been very informative for me and has allowed me to mentally solidify what had existed only in my subconscious beforehand. Specifically, Sandy’s discussion on the “seven problems of prophecy,” in chapter two, has alerted me to some difficulties in the hermeneutics of prophecy. When is a vision “surreal” and when do specific details in the vision inform the main point of the vision itself (perhaps a similar question could be asked of parables?) 1 How do we know when to take a passage literally and/or how literally to take it? 2

Simply becoming aware of these difficulties has confirmed for me that the most ‘literal” reading is not always the most faithful one (as is the prevailing misconception in the church today). In my experience, many well-intentioned and committed Christians are under the impression that the “literal” reading of a text is somehow superior to the “figurative” reading. However, as Sandy has convincingly demonstrated, the interpretation of Scripture is not always a “black and white” endeavor. Sometimes the Bible communicates to us with a “performance of poetry” rather than a series of propositions. 3

Sandy wraps up his discussion with the following encompassing question: “When should the words [of the Bible] be taken at face value?” 4 Now this question itself will vex many Christians who assume that, to ask such a question is to cast doubt on the truth of Scripture. However, I think a necessary corrective is to understand that, “The question is not whether the Bible tells the truth, but how it tells it.” 5

Application to Isaiah 1:1–19

Isaiah 1:1–19 contains a “vision of Isaiah” in which the wickedness of Judah is detailed in poetic language. In verse 4 for example, Judah is referred to as “offspring of evildoers.” Is the prophet simply making the bald assertion that the people of Judah are biological descendents of other people who do evil? Perhaps there is an element of truth to this, but it seems that there is poetic language in play here that must be considered for an accurate reading.

It is likely that the progenitorial language in verse four not only contributes to a poetic scheme in the passage, but that it also stands in relation to the similar language in verse two which says, “Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me.” There is a clear paternal theme being developed here. The people of Judah were children who were originally “reared” and “brought up” by YWH (v. 2), but now they have forsaken Him, thus becoming “offspring of evildoers” which ultimately results in their “estrangement” (v. 4).

This seems to be a good example of poetry in prophetic literature, the meaning of which would be lost if read “literally” or at “face value.” The prophet is not writing historical narrative of the people of Judah, rather he is playing the music of their history through poetic language. 6

Another example of poetry in this passage can be found in verse ten;

“Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!”

At first this address seems jarring. Has the audience of this passage suddenly shifted from the people of Judah to Sodom and Gomorrah? This is impossible since these cities were destroyed hundreds of years earlier – as any Jew at the time of Isaiah would have been fully aware. So then, rather than reading verse ten as an actual address to the centuries-deceased “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah,” the reader should pick up on the proverbial status that these cities would have had in Jewish culture at the time.

Sodom and Gomorrah had been the supreme example of cities that were engulfed with ungodliness ever since YWH destroyed them for their debauchery in Genesis 19. And here, it is evident that Isaiah is picking up on this theme as he applies to Judah the condition of Sodom and Gomorrah by addressing Judah as those very cities.

The poetry in the passages above are perhaps more easily discernible than in many other prophetic passages, but I think they helpful for me as I begin to rework my understanding of prophecy in Scripture.

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  1. D. Brent Sandy, Plowshares: Rethinking the Language of Biblical Prophecy and Apocalyptic (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 50.
  2. Ibid., 41.
  3. Ibid., 37.
  4. Ibid., 57.
  5. Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 92.
  6. Sandy, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks, 37.
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